In the afternoon sunshine of Vero Beach, Fla., on the second day of spring training last week, Tommy Lasorda cruised around Dodgertown in his golf cart. When he reached the grassy area behind home plate at Homan Stadium, he stopped to watch a kid named Hershiser fill the mitt of coach Joe Ferguson with strikes. Lasorda leaped from the cart and called his three catchers over to watch. "Look at that follow-through!" Lasorda yelled. "Look at those mechanics!" Before long a large group of fans had gathered, and Lasorda had them cheering each pitch.
This is an article from the March 4, 1991 issue
Only Lasorda could make an instant star out of a two-year-old. The young pitcher was Jordan Hershiser, the exceptionally advanced son of Los Angeles Dodger ace Orel Hershiser. And only Lasorda could be so upbeat, so fired up, so downright giddy with excitement just hours into spring training. But then, this is the dawn of a Dodger season that inspires high hopes—and may require all the positive energy Lasorda has to give.
In his 15th season as manager of the Dodgers, Lasorda faces his ultimate challenge: What to do with the most talented team he's ever had. In the mystifying science of team chemistry, Lasorda has long been considered a wizard. But with $37 million worth of new ballplayers now coursing through his clubhouse, he must mix a volatile blend of rookies, rehabs, recalcitrants and the ridiculously rich under pressurized expectations: to win the strongest division in baseball. Will it all come together in a gorgeous pyrotechnical display, or will it just blow up in his hands?
If the master chemist is even the least bit worried about the task before him, it certainly doesn't show. As in every spring, as in every day of Lasorda's life, he is a hand-clapping, back-slapping, butt-patting bundle of optimism. On the face of it, his exuberance is justified. The Dodgers, who last season finished second in the National League West, five games behind the Cincinnati Reds, turned to the free-agent market and added one of the game's best power hitters, Darryl Strawberry (the only player to hit more than 25 homers in each of the last eight years), and one of its best leadoff men, Brett Butler (one of only five players to reach base more than 200 times in each of the last eight years). They signed free-agent pitcher Kevin Gross, traded for pitcher Bob Ojeda and are encouraged by Hershiser's return from shoulder surgery.
"We could have competed with the Reds if we hadn't done anything except get healthy," says Hershiser. "But [Dodger general manager] Fred Claire didn't sit on his hands. He got more. This is the first Dodger team I've been on in my eight years here that, on paper, looks very good. It reminds me of the Mets and A's of the last three or four years, teams you pencil in as the team to beat."
Says Strawberry, "On paper, this team is better than the [world champion] '86 Mets. But that team was very determined. Only time will tell what type of determination this team has."
And only time will tell if the diverse personalities on this roster can coexist. "They have a problem, no doubt," says Al Rosen, general manager of the division-rival San Francisco Giants. "When you have guys who have been cantankerous—like Kal Daniels, Darryl Strawberry, Eddie Murray—you wonder what will happen when they're all together. I'm a big believer in chemistry. We have great chemistry. But Tommy is a great motivator. I think he can handle any mix."
Predictably, there was controversy the first day at Dodgertown. Top reliever Jay Howell and 1990 ace Ramon Martinez didn't report to camp because they were unhappy with their contracts. Martinez had been offered a one-year deal worth $400,000—which would be the highest salary ever given to a pitcher with less than two years of major league service. He wants more. Howell, the closer, will make $1.05 million in 1991, while his setup man, Jim Gott, will make $1.75 million. Howell wants an extension of his contract.
There are other questions to be answered. Is shortstop Alfredo Griffin's back ailment serious? Is highly touted 22-year-old rookie Jose Offerman ready to take over at short? Will starter Tim Belcher bounce back from shoulder surgery? Can 30-year-old lefty Fernando Valenzuela still win? Can the lineup survive its shortage of righthanded hitting? ("Teams will call up lefties from the minors just to face us," says one doubting Dodger.) Is the LA. defense good enough? ("It can't compare with ours," says the Giants' Rosen.)
So. Dr. Lasorda, how do you feel about that load of uncertainty? "I'm thankful to have all these good players," he says.
Most of all, it seems, he's grateful for his new rightfielder. "Darryl Strawberry is the most talented player in baseball," says Lasorda. Not to mention one of the most tempestuous. During his eight roller-coaster years with the Mets, Strawberry's bouts with alcohol, his wife, Lisa, and his teammates were well documented, but Lasorda shrugs all that off. "I know one thing," Lasorda says, losing count. "Darryl's a good guy, he's a friend of mine and he's a tremendous player."
The sentiment is mutual. Strawberry adores Lasorda, so much so that he made a commercial for Lasorda's spaghetti sauce. He did it for free, and, according to Lasorda, he did it last fall, before he signed a five-year, $20.25 million contract with the Dodgers in November.
"I really respect him," Strawberry says of his new boss. "I really admire him. Tommy never launders a player in the press or puts down a player. When you see that in a manager, you can't help but have a good time."
What's more, Strawberry loves L.A., his hometown. "The people in New York never knew me," he says. "They never sat down and had a conversation with me. They didn't know the person. The people in LA. are very friendly. Here they know who you really are. They know your heart. This year will be different."
The difference is more than one of geography. The new Darryl became a born-again Christian in January and spent much of the winter living in a room at the Sherman Oaks home of Bill Payne, who is an uncle of Strawberry's wife. Payne has served as a kind of spiritual adviser to Strawberry; during their time together, Strawberry read the Bible daily, went to bed early, got up early and worked out regularly. (He also regularly visited Lisa and their two children at their house in nearby Encino.)
On Feb. 14, his uniform's number, 8, was retired by his alma mater, Crenshaw High, in Los Angeles. Strawberry wept during the ceremony and said, "I'm so happy the Lord saved my life."
Only hours after his arrival in Vero Beach on Sunday, Strawberry unveiled the new man: "I've been set free. Jealousy, bitterness, anger, I've been removed from that. It's a totally different experience. But most people can't see it because they're blinded by sin. My life is at peace now. It's not a bunch of confusion like before. I'm not worried now about what is written by the media, or how to prepare for a game, or what the response will be when I go to New York. I'm going in a straight direction. I have nothing but faith and blessings. There will be a lot of glory for the Lord, and glory for the Dodgers."
Strawberry, though, isn't the only Dodger who comes to camp with a history of conflict. Daniels, L.A.'s fragile left-fielder, has offended his teammates before, allegedly by showing more concern about his hitting than about winning. Murray, the first baseman, cares greatly about winning, but can be moody and incommunicative, especially when his team is losing. Even Butler, who has a three-year, $10 million deal and will take over centerfield, was recently described by a rival manager as "weird." Butler created a stir in the San Francisco clubhouse last year when he intimated that the Giants' losing had something to do with Satan.
"I don't see the diverse personalities being a problem at all," says Butler, who was born in Los Angeles. "Take Darryl. It's always been his dream to play in L.A. Me, it's always been my dream, too. Kevin Gross says to me, 'I can't believe I'm home.' He lives right down the street. We have a bunch of homeboys on this club. So many of these guys are happy. The first time I put on the uniform, I sat down, felt my chest and legs and said, 'Am I here? Is this real?' I thought, 'Golly, can it get any better than this?' "
Golly, it actually could—if Hershiser proves capable of pitching anywhere near his old Cy Young form. Hershiser claims that at the very least he's stronger after a winter of weights. "I have a chest now," he says. "I used to be able to palm a basketball with my shoulders."
Hershiser feels just as good about the rest of the team. "It's like a puzzle," he says. "We don't know where everyone will fit, but we have some fantastic pieces."
Most of the pieces have been gathered by Claire, who became general manager in April 1987. Only Hershiser, Valenzuela, catcher Mike Scioscia and infielder Jeff Hamilton remain from the team that Claire inherited. Moreover, entering spring training, only 18 players on the 40-man roster are products of the Dodger organization, and there's little to pick from on the farms below. The front office likes to brag about prospects such as outfielder Henry Rodriguez, but the truth is that recent Dodger drafts have bordered on the disastrous. So instead of promoting from within, Claire and his staff have pieced this puzzle together with trades and free-agent buys.
This wouldn't be so noteworthy if the Dodgers had not been such a model organization for so long. The Dodgers of the 1940s and '50s were known for their constancy. Every pitcher on the 1960 staff was a Dodger product. In the 1970s, Los Angeles was anchored by the homegrown infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey. Now, the Dodgers are an aggregation of players from other organizations.
"Every team in modern baseball is going this way," Hershiser says. "Organization-bred teams are few and far between now. Since we acquired [Kirk] Gibson before the '88 season, we've been a free-agent team as a way to fill our holes."
Says one Dodger official, "I have a theory: We should get rid of our farm system. I'm serious. We don't need one. Who are free agents after this year? Gooden, Viola? We'll sign one of them. We're able to do that. And think about how much money we can save on instructors, minor league costs, all that. I don't think it would be a bad idea."
Claire, however, insists that the Dodger farm system will come back into play. He claims that the team won't be spending a great deal of money on free agents next winter and says that the recent signings were required to fill gaps. He's hoping that there won't be any big gaps to fill next year, maybe even for a few years.
"You have to bond a team together for a year, or a period of time," Claire says. "It probably won't last three years, it won't last five years. We can't change that. It's just the nature of the game today. The great Dodger teams with Pee Wee, Campy, Gil, Jackie...if they played like it is today, with free agency hanging over them, there's no way that team would have stayed together. We added people, but we added quality people. It's the obligation of 25 men to build chemistry or attitude. Brett and Darryl add to that. They bring chemistry to the team by their desire to play every day."
To help with possible conflicts, the Dodgers employ the only full-time psychiatrist in baseball. Dr. Herndon Harding Jr., 35, the great great grand-nephew of President Harding, was hired by the Dodgers in November (he was previously the director of the State of Ohio Department of Mental Health). On a confidential basis, he will work with the Dodgers' major and minor league players.
"I was skeptical at first. People cautioned me," Harding says when asked about dealing with highly paid and often-egotistical ballplayers. "But I've dealt with judges, politicians and people who make a lot of money in private practice. When you get down to brass tacks, most emotional makeups are the same. I've gotten all kinds of ribbing in my profession, like 'What are you doing in baseball?' It's not that the Dodgers are in trouble. They're not. This is just another progressive benefit that has made them the cream of the crop."
Harding may find that the Dodgers already have a good shrink: Lasorda. "He's unbelievable," says Hershiser. "Tommy can kick you in the pants one day, but the next day he's your best friend. He wants to be everyone's friend, but he lets everyone know he's boss. He's so kinetic. His energy level brings people together. He's a magnet. You know, you have a group of eight or 10 friends, but if one of them isn't there, the others don't have any fun. It's like that with Tommy. Take him to a dinner party and the whole group lights up."
Lasorda often defends his players—publicly. Privately, however, he will blast them face-to-face as he sees fit. He has an amazing ability to quickly dispose of negative situations. He strokes the egos of his players with little props, such as the celebrities he brings to the clubhouse. He tells his players whatever they want to hear, whatever makes them play their best. A Dodger scout says, "The first time I met him I thought he was full of it. But he believes half the things he says. Players think he's crazy, but they believe in him."
Butler believes. Lasorda has worn number 2 since he became manager. When Butler, who has worn number 2 most his career, joined the Dodgers, Lasorda told Butler he could have 2. An appreciative Butler took 22 instead.
Strawberry believes. When it is suggested that he and his new teammates may have trouble melding their personalities, Strawberry retorts, "The people who say that have wishy-washy minds. They should be focusing on what's going on in their lives, in their minds, instead of what's going on here. Anyway, with Tommy Lasorda around, you don't have to worry about chemistry."
Says Lasorda, "It's my job to get them to put forth all the effort they have. To do that, you have to let them know they're appreciated. They want to know that. When I took over with four games left in the '76 season, I called [outfielder] Reggie Smith in my office and told him, 'I just got this job as manager. It's a dream come true for me. I want to do good. I need your help.' He looked at me and said, 'No one ever told me that before, that they needed me.' The next year, he hit 32 homers."
Lasorda's greatest managing performance may have occurred last year, when he won 86 games with an injury-riddled team. "I made them believe, even when we were 14 games out," he says. He achieved more with less. This season, he has a lot, but must achieve it all.
"Every year is a big challenge. This year is no different," Lasorda says. "I've had great clubs before. So we've got some guys from other organizations. It's my job to band them together, to build up togetherness, spirit and that family attitude. I have to make them proud to wear that uniform."
If he can, the L.A. Story could run well into October.